Panthers Facing Giant Task

This weekend the Nottingham Panthers face a flight to Northern Ireland to take on one of the toughest challenges on the Elite League calendar – a double header weekend against the Belfast Giants.

The two games on Friday and Saturday night, both facing off at 7pm, will see Panthers head coach Corey Neilson pit his wits against his fellow Team GB assistant coach, Adam Keefe.

Keefe is into his sixth year as Giants head coach and has made Belfast a real force to be reckoned with in recent years. A two-time EIHL Coach of The Year, Keefe has delivered two league and cup doubles, but agonising Playoff Final losses to the Cardiff Devils have twice prevented him and the Giants winning the elusive Grand Slam and claiming all three trophies in one season.

Nottingham have a torrid record in Belfast in recent years, winning in just 4 of their last 20 trips across the water and conceding 6 goals or more in 8 of those games, in a dismal run stretching back to 2016.

The Panthers’ most recent trip to the SSE Arena came last Wednesday night, as they let a 5-2 aggregate lead slip in the final 2 periods to crash out of the Challenge Cup at the Quarter Final stage, the first time they’ve failed to qualify for the Semi-Finals of the competition since the 2008-09 season.

Neilson’s men can, however, take solace from the fact that they’ve won in each of their two other meetings this season, both at the NIC.

That said, with the 4th placed Giants currently on a run of 10 straight wins in the league, stretching back to 10th December, there can be no doubts as to how difficult a task this weekend will be for Nottingham.

One thing is for sure, if Panthers are to come away with anything this weekend, they will likely have to make the most of their powerplay opportunities. Despite their struggles in front of goal this season, at 23.29% the Panthers boast the league’s second best powerplay and it will be imperative that their powerplay fires this weekend.

On the other side of the coin, the Giants have a strong powerplay of their own, with their 23.16% good of enough for the league’s third best. Neilson’s men will have to dig in defend well if they are to repel this threat.

Keefe will likely split the goaltending duties between Jackson Whistle and Peyton Jones, as he has so often this season, although he now also has the services of Tyler Beskorowany to call on once again. The former two-time EIHL Goaltender of The Year came out of retirement for his third spell with the Giants on 2nd January but is yet to make an appearance.

With no midweek game to contend with next weekend, Neilson may well opt to start Alex Dubeau between the posts in both games. The 28-year-old French-Canadian started both games against the league leading Guildford Flames last weekend and has really cemented his position as the Panthers’ number one since Neilson’s arrival in November.

The Giants’ line-up is packed with depth, but their top line is, as usual, particularly dangerous. Belfast lost a huge cog in the summer in the form of JJ Piccinich, who finished last season as the league’s top goal and point scorer. However, new boy Steven Owre has slotted in perfectly alongside the lethal duo of Scott Conway and David Goodwin and is scoring at just under a point per game so far.

In Conway and Goodwin, Keefe has at his disposal two of the league’s most highly skilled players. GB International Conway currently leads the league on points with 48 from his 28 games, while Goodwin sits third with 42.

Goodwin, who has played over 110 games in the Finnish Liiga, captains the Giants and comes into the weekend on a 9-game point streak. The 30-year-old also boasts the league’s best plus/minus for a forward at +27.

Nottingham’s dangerman is without doubt Brett Welychka. The 28-year-old Canadian is the Panthers’ top point scorer and has 12 goals in the 15 league games since Neilson took over, as well as 3 assists. Welychka is the league’s fourth top goal scorer with 18 and is a huge influence for Neilson’s side, featuring on both the powerplay and penalty kill.

The weekend’s games will likely come too soon for the Giants’ new Swedish forward Henrik Eriksson who signed from Lillehammer in Norway on Sunday night. The Panthers added their own Swede playing in Norway on Wednesday afternoon, in the form of Stjernen defenceman Albin Lindgren, although he isn’t expected to debut in black and gold until next weekend.

Panthers fans who aren’t making the trip to Northern Ireland will be able to catch both Friday and Saturday’s games on Giants TV.

*Article provided by Evan Shaw (Nottingham Panthers Correspondent).

*Main image @PanthersIHC Panthers lost to Guildford Flames last out and are without a win in five.

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